Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It may seem as though I’ve disappeared but I haven’t. I have been reading, a bit less than last month since I am slowly starting to translate and work again, but I’ve got several books I would like to write about. Before I get to that, however, since I don’t have time to sort through my reading notes today, let me point out two things:

First, my review of Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck is up at The Quarterly Conversation and second, I came across an interesting article in the most recent issue of The American Scholar – The Decline of the English Department

Crace begins with statistics* showing that majoring in English and other Humanities is in decline, while majoring in Business is up. He outlines some of the pertinent external reasons why this might be so but then focuses on an examination of several factors coming from within English Departments themselves which could explain their failure to grow. I apologize for the long quote, but I feel this gets at the heart of Chace’s argument:

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

Chace’s frustration seems to lie in the continual off-centering (and he does attempt to locate a traditional center) of English departments, and what he might call a frantic race to embrace the multi-cultural and multi-faceted aspect of “English” as it’s understood today. While that embrace might be admirable, he feels we’ve gone in that direction at the expense of constructing a “coherent” discipline.

I know that many of you are English / Humanities professors or, like me, come out of and are committed to the discipline and I’d love to hear some of your reactions to his argument.

*Crace’s statistics include English, Philosophy, History, Languages and then as a comparison, Business. His article focuses exclusively on English, but the decline in History is just as significant and I am curious what he might suggest to explain this similar failure, since I think of History as a very coherent discipline, with fairly rigid boundaries and so forth. I’m not saying his argument about English doesn’t hold, I’m just wondering about the similar drop in History and if it might be explained in similar terms.


17 Responses to “English in decline and another TQC review”

  1. nicole

    I read this a few weeks ago and I favor a different explanation, which Crace does mention. We are encouraging many, many more high school students to go to college, and the marginal college student is going to be a lot less interested in a humanities major and a lot more interested in majors like business.

  2. verbivore

    Nicole – I was thinking about this as well, and how silly it is that we push so many kids to go to college when they’d do just as well or even better in a vocational school (part of the problem here is how little we value vocational training vs “university studies”).

  3. Lilian Nattel

    This has been going on for a long time. I heard similar comments way back in the 80’s. I agree with Nicole and Verbivore–getting a university degree has become mandatory for most jobs and that’s what is affecting students’ choices. On the other hand I think that academics and artists have done a poor pr job (ironically given that these are the people who are ostensibly the best communicators) on the social and economic roles of these disciplines, which are vital. But I don’t think it’s the change from a canon to a broader view of literature.

  4. Stefanie

    Personally, I don’t think it is English departments that are the problem so much as money, which he mentions, and a change in the reasons why people go to college, which he also mentions. Business is the biggest major because people think that they will make money. The humanities’ argument in response seems weak–liberal arts will teach you how to think critically and will expose you to a world of ideas which will give you useful work skills–just doesn’t cut it. And when you see salary charts fro various professions and the college degree required to enter said profession, seems a no-brainer to me. Students today want degrees that will lead to a good job. It will only be those who don’t have to worry about money or who are passionate about humanities that will major in English.

    I think the humanities could and should do a better job at marketing themselves to the university and find a way to argue, and I think argue rightly, about the importance of humanities to a well-rounded education especially for those majoring in the sciences.

  5. litlove

    I agree completely with Stefanie’s argument about money. This I KNOW to be true. English departments get less and less funding these days because they do not ‘bring in’ money the way the sciences do, with their industry grants. Which means that anyone with a job is rushing like mad to get their own publications out in order to hang onto it, and doesn’t have the time or inclination to defend the whole subject per se. And morale is low, as you might expect when people are telling you from all quarters that what you do is futile.

    But there’s something else I’d like to draw attention to in the quote, and that’s how similar the criticisms are of English studies and modern religion. To be a minister of the church today, you don’t have to define or delimit God, you don’t even have to believe everything in the bible. When people criticise religion for not being the social power it used to be, the reasons are that you can’t say for sure what religion is, or what God does, or how it actually affects our lives any more.

    Which seems to me to indicate that the issue here is one of belief. I think that earlier in the century, there was a sneaking tendency to view art as an alternative to religion, a different form of spirituality, and if we can’t use it as something magnificent, miraculous, transformative, if we can’t make it assume authority over us by proving itself to be useful over and again, then we’ll resent it and dismiss it. English studies have changed, ironically in order to stay in touch with what society currently considers to be art, but it seems that there is a lot of mistrust and unhappiness about that change.

    This argument here is the definition argument, fundamentally – if we can’t define something and set boundaries around it and see quite clearly its causes and effects, then it must necessarily be useless and pointless. I don’t buy that, because very little in life can actually be defined or its causes and effects clearly traced. It’s about people wanting things to be set and neat and tidy, when in reality they are not. It was the same criticism made to feminism that brought on the backlash of the 90s and ended the second wave movement. So I am full of suspicion of it as a strategy.

    Sorry for the essay!

  6. Care

    I can’t speak to this topic other than to say 20 years ago, I was advised not to get an English degree because I would never find a job. Yet, here I am with an engineering degree and writing book reviews for fun (because I don’t want to work whacky hours and commute to any tech job).
    You are so correct about skewed values to college degrees in comparison to vocational training.

  7. verbivore

    Lilian – It’s interesting what you say about academics and artists doing a poor pr job regarding the value of their disciplines. I do think this has happened, but I also wonder if some of it has to do with the fact that they are fighting large social/cultural forces which undermine much of their attempts. It must get tiring.

    Stefanie – It is a bit sad, isn’t it, to think that students who are unconcerned about making money are the ones gravitating toward English and the Humanities. Although this has pretty much been the case for hundreds of years. Academia has never, for all I know, been a road to riches. Kindof ensures only those who are truly interested get involved. But I do think the importance of the Humanities to the rest of life needs to be somehow better transmitted. I’m not sure how to go about doing that.

    Litlove – No apologies necessary for leaving an essay, your thoughts on this are especially welcome. And I like your rebuttal of his idea that something must be defined in order to be considered useful. I agree with your defense, but I’m curious to hear what you feel about his criticism of schools like Harvard who have thrown out a standard curriculum per se, and just encourage students to follow their noses. I’m not strictly conventional in this respect, but I do believe some fundamentals are important in an English or a Humanities education. If a student would like to major in English, I would want them to come out with a working knowledge of some fundamental core of English (either American or English) and he seems to think this idea has been lost in modern English departments. Has this been your experience?

    Care – Isn’t it sad that we don’t value vocational training? I get so frustrated about this. Mainly because (and I’ve trumpeted this horn before) but in Switzerland, vocational training is considered as important as academic training (and is paid as well). They are seen as different, but not necessarily one better than the other.

  8. litlove

    Me again! I suppose the thing is that the Cambridge course is completely opposite to Harvard. The students spend most of their first two years on old texts, working through from Chaucer and Shakespeare to the 19th century. It’s only in their final year they do any modern lit at all! But, in recent years, the practical criticism exam has asked them to consider traditional poetry against the lyrics of Amy Winehouse and Eminem, for instance. So that course could be loosened up a little.

    As for letting students follow their noses, I would say it all depended on the student and the guidance they received. If this is nose following with a sensitive and informed critic who’s ready to insist on some depth and breadth being covered, it might be just dandy. I mean, look at your self-selected 10 year plan! It’s marvellous and completely Harvard-worthy.

    I suppose my personal sense is that the Great Tradition, a la Leavis, is not something I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s not the case that there is a fixed canon that a student can learn from, with no variations. And I think that when students are learning, it’s no good giving them the lyrics of Bob Dylan and David Foster Wallace alone to read. They do have to work through different layers of difficulty in texts. But to teach sensitive, creative, insightful reading, there’s a lot of middleground, an a lot of more unusual combinations of literature that might work very well indeed.

  9. Care

    I trumpet that horn, too. I had a job as Vocational Ed Coordinator recruiting trades-professionals into education and the biggest obstacle was the Higher Ed snobs. The resentment was a big shock, and the politics. I was so young…

  10. litlove

    Just to say I think vocational training is fab. A person should be able to have an education and a vocation – they’re different things, right? But both essential. However, here in the UK, the vocational courses are considered highly, and it’s the pure educational course like classics or English literature that are viewed suspiciously as ‘a waste of tax payer’s money’.

  11. Charlotte

    I’m late to the party (the irony: because I’ve been struggling with my own “taking up literary studies” so much this week, I have not had a second to think or read), but here’s something I’d like to offer: while I agree that the money question is absolutely key (I went into business and did it for over ten years solely for money. At 18, and easily influenced, it seemed a rational choice), I would also say that literary studies are frightening to the uninitiated.
    I’m a rather unsophisticated book lover (unforgiveable at my age probably, but I’d expect quite common among 18-year olds choosing what to go to college for), and the reason I want to study literature is because I love reading. I do think it’s important for many reasons other than just the pleasure of it, and I do think it’s important to attempt some understanding and intimacy with your reading; I even suspect that’s what’s going to keep me interested in the long run… But the spark of wanting to study literature is simply that I find the written word fascinating and enjoyable.
    Yet I find myself slightly ashamed to type that… It feels like I’m writing code for “I’m not sophisticated enough to actually study literature”. That pleasure should be irrelevant, and that mentioning it is tacky of me.
    When I started looking up different US programs, everything was about theory, political commentary, bridges to the other arts, etc. That’s intimidating. Some programs (the comforting ones) had a list of 500 books which they were “just going to assume you have already read”; the others thought that list were so over. Now, don’t mistake me, I appreciate litlove’s point that we don’t need to define everything, but I just wanted a little idea of where I was heading, maybe the feeling that what I had done before would be helpful?
    And on the French side, about 60% of my courses this year (French program) are Latin, Classic culture, grammar, etc. (thank god I took modern lit, I can’t imagine how much Latin they have in classic). They’re all excellent building blocks, but I wouldn’t complain about a little more texts!
    (I’ll end on an anecdote: on the “welcome” page of the website for lit program I am attending, there is a “what can you do with a lit degree” section. 5 of the 6 options they list are “here’s how you can use your lit degree as a stepping stone to a something un-literary”. Inspiring for a first contact!)

  12. catherinedigman

    I do agree that young people choosing school and university courses are often very worried about money and the jobs market. But maybe if English courses were more strict and specific they would start to be considered ‘desirable qualifications’ by potential employers.

    My own education was very traditional, and this tends to help me to get interviews & jobs. As long as you have good IT skills and some work experience behind you, many interviews like to see traditional academic subjects on your CV as it suggests you can study something substantial. This is why it’s such a mistake to water down the content on English & Lit courses.

    I took a Theology course a few years ago, it’s probably not very relevant to my current job, but because it was a very specific course, it implies a certain level of discipline and intellectual ability, which was helpful on my job application.

  13. Steve

    Interesting topic, and great blog.

    I chose to do a business degree at university, due to a lack of any idea of what I wanted to do with my life post-university. If I did want to pursue a career in business, then a degree was deemed to be pretty much a necessity. So despite the fact my interests lay in the humanities, I did business.

    I also told myself that you can self-educate yourself in the humanities fairly well. There’s nothing to stop you reading the great books in your own time. This is even more true today with the advent of iTunes U and other free online university courses in the humanities.

    I imagine this is another reason that humanities will struggle to recruit students.

  14. verbivore

    Litlove – I completely agree that nose following can lead to wonderful things, as long as there is some structure beforehand. I think student’s do need some guidance in order to get the most out of their later self-education. Obviously one extreme, exclusive type of curriculum denies the benefits to be found by the other. And I suspect that most English departments are trying to do this – moderate the traditional Greats with contemporary input to help students see the relevance of a Humanities education.

    Charlotte – Your comment about literary studies being frightening to the uninitiated is one I wish the article would have addressed. And I didn’t think of it until you mentioned it. There is often a wall around Academia, created from within and without and that is definitely a factor in a decline in enrolment. Opposite that, business often appears more people friendly and more “social”.

  15. verbivore

    Catherine – Hello and thanks for leaving a comment. I think you would agree, then, with Crace’s article and his frustration at the off-centering of English departments. I’m curious whether this is really the norm these days, or whether English departments continue to be a big mix of traditional “canon” and a more varied curriculum.

    Steve – Hello and thanks for leaving a comment. You make a great point. I remember many of my friends in college did much the same, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do so Business seemed the practical route. I also do believe it’s possible to self-educate in the Humanities if you’re truly motivated. But I can’t help thinking it’s the rare individual who will really pursue this kind of study later in life. Maybe there are more people that do this than I think…I hope so.

  16. catherinedigman

    I really understand Crace’s frustration. For example I find English vocabulary fascinating, the way we have so many words, but with very subtle and specific meanings, but I doubt that the comprehension of English language is taught to any decent level on many courses now. Speaking and writing English correctly is such an art. I regularly receive correspondence at work, from all sorts of ‘professional’ white collared persons, containing no end of errors. And it shocks me how many magazine and newspaper articles are not written in “English”.

    I found a copy of this book in a second hand shop-


    It really highlights the technical nature of writing good English prose. It’s amazing how this isn’t taught as a ‘hard’ subject any more.

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